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Music Mentor: Shining a Light on Young Lives

Through musical theater, minority students in Germany find hope and new self-respect.

GRAY, CINDER BLOCK APARTMENT BUILDINGS and unemployment rates hovering around 25 percent have saddled the Wedding neighborhood with the moniker "the Bronx of Berlin." But to expatriate American Todd Fletcher, who lives in a trendy neighborhood that borders Wedding, the more appropriate U.S. analogy might be the Jim Crow South. Many of Wedding’s residents are the descendants of Germany’s Turkish guest workers, or the men who were recruited in the years after World War II to fill low-paid manual jobs. As the "guest" worker title implies, they were expected to leave the country after the work dried up. Many stayed, however, and they and their descendants have become some of the most ostracized members of German society. “These people live in a parallel society,” Fletcher says. “The kids have no plans, no dreams for the future. They’ve given up hope.”

A Source of New Self Esteem. For the past two years, Fletcher has dedicated himself to altering that bleak outlook through an unlikely vehicle: musical theater. Fletcher, 39, has spent much of his career writing, teaching, composing, and directing; he knew from experience how the discipline of rehearsals and the thrill of performing can bolster kids’ self-esteem. His nonprofit, PluralArts International, stages productions in predominantly minority schools and communities, reaching students who are constantly being devalued—oftentimes by the men and women who teach them.

“The teachers and principals will always tell me, ‘Okay, maybe you’ve been able to get kids to get to rehearsals on time in other schools. Believe us, it’s not going to happen here,’” Fletcher recounts. “But then, it always does.”

Their Life Is the Script. While it might seem odd that an American is at the forefront of finding ways to improve the experiences of German’s largest minority population, Fletcher is in many ways an ideal emissary. He is African American, and while the director says he hasn’t had to deal with much overt discrimination (raised in a well-to-do family, he graduated from Harvard), his minority status makes an impression on the students. “They seem to think, ‘if this black guy can work hard and achieve success, maybe we can too,’” Fletcher says.

Fletcher seals the students’ commitment to his productions by crafting the libretto to reflect their experiences. For his latest creation, “Streets of Wedding,” which was unveiled in June of last year, then restaged as a larger production in March, Fletcher spent two weeks with students at a Gesamtschule (a comprehensive school that streams students into university and non-university tracks) and then wrote the plot based around their frustrations with being stereotyped. The script came almost directly from what the kids had confided in Fletcher—with a hitch: the musical was in English, to help the kids learn a foreign language.

Opening Hearts—and Doors. Many of the participants were shocked to learn they could sing and act, let alone do it in a foreign tongue. “We touched people,” says 17-year-old Meryem Fiske, a student of Turkish origin who performed in the show. “Some people even cried when I sang. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before.”

The witnesses to Fiske’s talent went beyond the traditional parents-and-teachers high school musical crowd. The U.S. embassy helped Fletcher underwrite the musical, and the opening night in March in Berlin garnered an audience of more than 600 people. The Minister of Interior was so impressed that he sponsored a national tour. It was the first time many of the students had been outside of the Wedding neighborhood.

Fletcher is currently producing music programs in Wedding and Neukölln, another predominantly minority neighborhood. Later this year, though, he will work with low-income native Germans from East Berlin. In some ways, these students face similar challenges to second- and third-generation immigrants: They also hail from a community with high unemployment rates and low expectations of students. But in part because the opportunities promised by the fall of Communism nearly two decades ago failed to materialize, many of the students have anti-immigrant sentiment. “I want to go into the lion’s den,” Fletcher says, as he explains why he’s tackling this project. Theater, he believes, will again help students change their perspectives. And when they are on the stage, singing about their frustrations and sharing their dreams, the audience may start seeing them in a different light, too.

Alexandra Starr reported this story during a stay in Europe, where she was a Milena Jesenská journalism fellow in Vienna. She has just returned to New York, where she continues to write on immigration and social issues.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community.

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